The Iowa Reboot

The electoral debacle in this year’s Iowa caucus has had one positive effect:  it has made other states carefully examine their election processes, in hopes that they won’t become “the next Iowa.”  In Nevada, for example, officials took a hard look at the 2020 Iowa caucus and made several changes to the planned Nevada caucus procedure, including getting rid of apps that were going to be used and going instead to paper ballots.  Even so, many people have concerns about the Nevada caucus, which starts in a few days.

states-with-same-day-registrationIn Ohio, where the primary won’t occur until next month, the concern isn’t about apps, caucus rules, or complicated vote-counting procedures.  Instead, some people are questioning whether the turnout in Ohio elections should cause Ohio to address a more fundamental issue:  the process for registering to vote and then voting.

This article from the Executive Director of the ACLU of Ohio frames the issue.  It notes that the turnout in the 2018 mid-term elections in Ohio was about 50 percent of registered voters, placing the Buckeye State’s participation percentage at 29th out of the 50 states.  The turnout by voters in the 18 to 24 group was especially pathetic.

But, what causes low turnout?  The ACLU director rejects the possibility that some citizens simply lack interest, and instead contends that Ohio’s procedures discourage participation.  He advocates for abolishing the Ohio requirement that voters register at least 30 days before an election in favor of allowing “same day” registration and voting, and argues that would-be voters should be able to register at Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices.  He also supports making sure that early voting — a process that Ohio already follows — provides for ample evening and weekend hours and simple absentee procedures to allow people who work two jobs, live in remote areas, are homebound, or are serving in the armed forces overseas to cast their ballots without a hassle.

I’m in favor of taking a fresh look at Ohio’s procedures and auditing the elections in other states that have different procedures to see whether Ohio’s processes can be simplified and improved.  I have to admit, however, that I’m leery of same day registration and voting, which seems like a recipe for Election Day chaos and potential fraud — and therefore I’m particularly interested at an objective look at how that option has worked in other states.  I also wonder at the most fundamental premise in the ACLU director’s article:  if a voter can’t be bothered to register at least 30 days before an election, is it really the procedure that is keeping that voter from the polls, or is it good old-fashioned voter apathy, instead?

Can The Caucus

To put it mildly, Monday night’s Iowa Democratic caucus did not go well.  A combination of a new app for reporting caucus results that had some kind of “coding error,” new procedures, and new back-up systems, along with general confusion seemingly caused by inadequate training of the users of the new app and systems, created a chaotic atmosphere and ended up delaying the disclosure of the results.  The Iowa Democratic Party did not release partial results until yesterday, and even now, as of 6 a.m. on Wednesday, the New York Times is reporting results from only 71 percent of precincts.

2020-02-04t151609z_2_lynxmpeg130gw_rtroptp_2_usa-election-iowaThe debacle leaves the Iowa caucus organizers with a huge black eye, and is tremendously unfair to the candidates who endured so many debates and put so much time and effort into the process, hoping for a result that would lift their campaigns and give them that coveted momentum going forward.  Instead, the fiasco left nothing but a muddled mess and confusion in its wake, with no clear winner except the conspiracy theorists who wondered whether some foreign government was trying to interfere in the 2020 election or whether Democratic Party leaders were trying to tinker with the results so favored candidates would prevail.

It’s incredible that, in 2020, an American state cannot promptly report accurate results from an political selection process, but maybe there’s a silver lining in all of this and the political parties will ultimately choose to make lemonade from this year’s Iowa lemon.  Two choices make sense to me.

First, get rid of the Iowa caucus — something that many people are now calling for or predicting.  Iowa follows a weird process that isn’t like an election as most of us understand an election, where we go into a voting booth and cast a secret ballot, or vote absentee, without following convoluted rules that leave people arguing with each other in a high school gym or fire station.  The evening caucus process also isn’t welcoming to participation by working people with family obligations.  Moreover, Iowa isn’t exactly a representative state — nor is New Hampshire.  Rather than adhering to antique notions of who should be first, perhaps political leaders will use the Iowa caucus mayhem as a reason to take a fresh look at the whole process and try to develop a rational approach.

Second, it’s time to call a halt to efforts to be more “cutting edge” in the use of technology in our electoral processes.  Elections don’t need to be as easy as summoning an Uber ride.  It’s clear that at least part of the problem in Iowa was due to rolling out new and insufficiently tested tech, rather than going with tried and true methods.  Using apps and cellphones in elections just raises more concerns about hacking and spoofing and electoral interference, anyway.  How about holding an election the old-fashioned way, with volunteers and voting machines, so that we can have some assurance that everyone knows what they are doing and the results can be counted and released within hours, rather than days?

The 2020 Iowa Democratic caucus isn’t the worst thing that has happened in the history of American politics, but it can be viewed as an opportunity to bring some order to the American electoral calendar and the hodge-podge of processes being used.  Will there be adults in the room who will decide it’s finally time to seize that opportunity?

Mayor Mike’s Super Bowl Selfie

Facebook can be pretty jarring these days.  You’re scrolling through posts about your friend’s great trip to Italy, or the impressive honor a colleague received from her alma mater, or the fine paintings other friends have created, or pictures of kids and dogs and home remodeling projects . . . and then suddenly you’re confronted with overt political ads.  They stick out like a sore thumb.

Consider this Facebook ad for former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg that appeared on my news feed recently.  He apparently has bought ad time for the Super Bowl game, but he wants to encourage people to go to some other page to see the ad even before game time — and as a result the friends on Facebook have to see this crudely photo-shopped image of a grim Mayor Mike staring into the distance, sleeves rolled up as politico sleeves always are, towering over a football stadium, with his foot on a football.  It’s like a gigantic political selfie.  (And it might be tone deaf, besides — if you’re a football fan, you certainly don’t think that anyone is bigger than the game itself, and if you’re not a football fan, you probably don’t want anyone to remind you that the Super Bowl will be dominating water cooler conversations come Monday.)

Facebook has always been a political forum of sorts, as people have posted comments and memes about the political events of the day.  But we seem to have moved into a new era where it’s not just Facebook friends posting their political views, but also the candidates themselves barging into your news feed.  It’s like a group of people standing and talking and minding their own business when an overly caffeinated campaign volunteer butts in and starts pushing fliers into your hand and talking about how awful the opposing candidate is.  To me, at least, overt Facebook political ads like Mayor Mike’s Super Bowl Selfie seem awfully intrusive, and not effective for that reason.

As time has passed Facebook has become a lot more commercialized and ad-oriented, and now it’s becoming more politicized, too.  I prefer the old dog and kid photo days.

 

The Skincare Question

Recently Cosmopolitan interviewed Senator, and Democratic presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren.  Among many other questions that were asked, Cosmopolitan posed a question to the Senator from Massachusetts about . . . her “skincare routine.”  The exchange went like this:

Jessica Pels: You knew this was coming. What is your skincare routine?

Elizabeth Warren: Pond’s Moisturizer.

Elizabeth Warren: Every morning, every night. And I never wash my face.

Jessica Pels: Wow.

Elizabeth Warren: Nope, nope.

Jessica Pels: You’re one of those.

Elizabeth Warren: Yeah, I am.

Jessica Pels: That’s a very French thing.

2e9867e5-41c6-42ef-8e91-3ef0f7b23b73.jpg.w1920Weirdly, the Q&A on the Senator’s skincare habits has drawn as much attention as anything else in the interview, with some people expressing mystification at the fact that she evidently never washes her face.  I’m not really qualified to comment on somebody’s skincare routine, although I seem to remember seeing my mother and grandmothers dipping into a little jar of Pond’s cold cream now and then.

Apparently Cosmopolitan asks the skincare question to all of the candidates, male and female, and if you’re interested you can see the answers given so far here.  You’ll be stunned to learn that Senator Bernie Sanders doesn’t do much in the skincare area.  (I would have thought he would need to apply a mild form of sandblasting to those leathery jowls, frankly.)  And Joe Biden hasn’t been quizzed on the skincare topic yet, so we don’t know whether, as I suspect, he regularly applies something to that porcelain visage to make sure that it doesn’t crack.

Seriously, though — do we need to ask political candidates these kinds of intrusive, personal questions?  I’m sure some would argue that it humanizes them, and I suppose the barrier was forever broken when some unduly curious person asked Bill Clinton whether he wore boxers or briefs.  I, for one, don’t need to know about that, or skincare routines, or shaving techniques, or preferred deodorants.  I think we’d all be better off if we left a little respectful distance between ourselves and the everyday personal routines of the people seeking higher office.  Ask them about their positions, look into their backgrounds and public activities, and explore their voting records all you want — but can’t we leave a respectful zone of privacy in the skincare and personal hygiene areas?

My Friends And Family Resolution

I’ve thought a bit about what my New Year’s resolution for 2020 should be, and I’ve decided it really is pretty simple:  my resolution is to try to make it to the end of 2020 without irretrievably alienating any of my friends or family.

This may sound like an easy resolution to keep, but I don’t think it is — not really.  In fact, I think 2020 is going to be one of the toughest years, ever, to get through while keeping your coterie of friends, family, and colleagues intact.  That’s because, in this already absurdly super-heated political environment, we’re moving into a year where there will be a presidential campaign, a presidential election, and, apparently, an impeachment trial — all percolating at the same time.  Many of my friends and family members, of all political stripes, feel very passionately about each of those events in isolation.  When you put them all together you’ve got what is probably the most combustible combination of political events in American history.

One year that might be comparable is 1864, when a presidential election took place in the midst of a Civil War, when even the Union, alone, was bitterly divided.  But even 1864 might not really be a good comparator, because in those days the candidates and the country as a whole didn’t need to run a gauntlet of caucuses, primaries, debates, and 24-hour news coverage.  Unfortunately, we’ll be subjected to all of those things.

Our current circumstances have produced the kind of fervent environment where one ill-chosen word or ill-advised joke could damage feelings beyond repair, end a friendship that has endured for decades, or cause family members to vow never to talk to each other or interact again.  I don’t want that to happen.  I like and respect all of my family members and friends, and I’d like to end 2020 without experiencing any regrets that some stupid blog post, social media comment, or argument after a few adult beverages wrecked things.  So this year will be a year of walking on eggshells, with all things dealing with the presidential election off-limits for me.  Call me a wimp if you want.

This is my own, self-imposed pledge.  I’m not going to shush my friends or try to keep them from expressing their strongly held views in strongly phrased ways.  But as for me, I value my friends and family more than I value my need to engage in political debates.

 

Of Constitutional Concern

Through a vote yesterday, President Trump has been formally impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives.  The matter now moves to the U.S. Senate.

I’ll leave the impeachment proceedings to the talking heads — for now at least.  Today I’d like to focus, instead, on another area of constitutional concern that has been lost in the constant drumbeat of news on impeachment.  I’m speaking of an extraordinary order issued by the FISA Court earlier this week, in the wake of the recent Inspector General’s report on the conduct of the FBI and the Department of Justice in receiving authorization to conduct surveillance.  I’ve linked to the text of the Order above.

fb-seal-headquartersThe FISA court gets its name from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the statute which created the Court.  FISA requires the government to apply for, and receive authorization from, the FISA Court before it can engage in electronic surveillance.  The applications are to be made in writing, upon oath or affirmation, by a federal officer from the agency, such as the FBI, that seeks to conduct the surveillance.  The FISA Court — consisting of judges appointed by both Democratic and Republican administrations — is then supposed to review the applications to decide whether they establish probable cause that the proposed surveillance target is a “foreign power” or an “agent of a foreign power” within the meaning of FISA.

This process is critical because — as the FISA Court’s Order issued this week notes — it was designed to allow the FISA Court to provide a check on executive branch power to conduct surveillance and thereby protect the Fourth Amendment rights of American citizens against unlawful search and seizure.  To allow the Court to do that job, FISA imposes a heightened duty of candor upon the federal agents and agencies in their applications to the Court.  The FISA Court considers candor to be “fundamental” to its effective operations.

The Order issued this week makes it clear that the FBI, in seeking the FISA Court’s approval of the surveillance order that was discussed in the Inspector General’s report, did not meet its duty of candor — not by a long shot.  To the contrary, the Court notes that the Inspector General’s report “documents troubling instances” in which FBI personnel provided information that was “unsupported or contradicted by information in their possession” and “withheld . . . information in their possession which was detrimental to their case for believing that [Carter] Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power.”

In addition, the Order notes that an attorney for the FBI engaged in conduct that “apparently was intended to deceive the FBI agent who ultimately swore to the facts in that application about whether Mr. Page had been a source of another government agency.”  The Court believes that the conduct of the attorney gives rise to “serious concerns about the accuracy and completeness of the information provided to the [FISA Court] in any matter (emphasis added)” in which the attorney was involved.

The Order adds:  “The FBI’s handling of the Carter Page applications, as portrayed in the OIG report, was antithetical to the heightened duty of candor described above. The frequency with which representations made by FBI personnel turned out to be unsupported or contradicted by information in their possession, and with which they withheld information detrimental to their case, calls into question whether information contained in other FBI applications is reliable. The FISC expects the government to provide complete and accurate information in every filing with the Court. Without it, the FISC cannot properly ensure that the government conducts electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes only when there is a sufficient factual basis.”

The FISA Court’s Order concludes by ordering the FBI to provide a sworn written submission identifying what it has done, and what it will do, to ensure that the statements of facts in each FBI application accurately and completely set forth the material information in the possession of the FBI.  It will be interesting to see how the FBI responds.

In today’s world, there’s often argument about whether the news that is reported, and the characterization of events that is conveyed, is slanted or biased or accurate.  The FISA Court’s Order — which is only four pages long, and can be read and understood by any educated American — allows us to go to the source and see how a Court that is composed of judges with lifetime tenure who were appointed by both Republicans and Democrats is reacting to a detailed report on serious misconduct by the FBI.

The Fourth Amendment is there to protect all of us — Democrat, Republican, or Independent, liberal or conservative.  If the FBI is willing to distort, deceive, and misrepresent to pursue an agenda, that’s a concern for everyone.  We should all be grateful to the FISA Court for putting aside politics, recognizing that the ends don’t justify the means, and holding the FBI to account.

Trash Tax

I’m a big believer in the “user fee” concept of funding governmental services.  The underlying notion is simple:  many governmental services benefit us all, but some benefit only the specific users of the service — so why not have them bear the lion’s share of the cost of providing that service?  If a municipal government operates an airport, for example, it seems eminently fair to fund its construction and operations through taxes and charges to the passengers who fly through the airport and the airlines, rental car companies, and other who profit by doing business at the airport.

I think governmental entities also should consider expanding the “user fee” concept to look not only at who benefits from government services, but also at who causes the need for the government service in the first place.  I’m thinking specifically about the trash that you find at the parks, and on the streets and sidewalks, of Columbus and other American cities.  At some point, for example, somebody from some governmental entity comes to Schiller Park, empties the refuse cans, and picks up the random bits of trash to be found on the park lawns and sidewalks.

As a dedicated litter fighter who tries to pick up and throw away the random trash found at Schiller, I know first hand that much of the contents of the trash cans, and virtually all of the litter on the lawns and sidewalks, is fast food debris — coffee cups and lids, cheap styrofoam containers, straws, straw wrappers, sandwich wrappers, napkins, and carryout bags.  It’s virtually inevitable that at least some portion of fast food carryout will end up as litter, and as you move from the area around the McDonald’s to the area around the Starbucks you see the change in the litter patterns that reflects that.

So why not impose a targeted “trash tax” on fast food restaurants that helps to defray the cost of picking up the litter that those businesses generate?  It would be different from any fees paid for maintaining dumpsters at the fast food restaurant that get emptied from time to time, and would instead focus on the cost of the consequences of fast food carryout from a neighborhood trash standpoint.  And if fast food restaurants wanted to pass on the cost by charging carryout customers a bit more, I’d be fine with that, too.

Litter is a curse that can ruin enjoyment of parks and neighborhoods.  It seems eminently fair to require the businesses that cause the litter problem to pay for addressing it.